05/26/2004 12:00AM

Nearly perfect at Hanshin distance

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - The trainer Pete Vestal finally remembered the last horse he ran at Arlington Park, and then kind of wished he hadn't. A filly named Atomizer took a bad step in the stretch of the Pucker Up Handicap, hurt her leg, and never raced again.

"I used to have a string up at Arlington years ago, but I've never had much luck in Chicago," Vestal said Thursday from his Kentucky base.

Vestal might need a turn of luck, but in Crafty Shaw he and owner Charles Cella have an able participant in Saturday's Hanshin Handicap. The reason Vestal has come back to Arlington is distance. Not the distance from Louisville that Crafty Shaw travels to get here Friday, but the one-turn, one-mile distance of the Grade 3, $100,000 Hanshin.

Crafty Shaw, now 6, showed stakes-level ability soon after he began his career in 2000, and there have been moments when he threatened to break into the top tier of national handicap horses: a head loss to Lido Palace in the 2002 Clark Handicap, two close finishes in the Oaklawn Handicap.

"I feel the reason he couldn't quite get there was that I couldn't find enough mile races to run in," Vestal said.

Vestal's observation holds water. In his career, Crafty Shaw has made 38 starts and won 14 times. At a mile, he has won 6 of 7, including three stakes.

Said Vestal: "He's a real good speed-biased horse. He likes the front end. One turn is even better, because you can get some real speed, and he'll sit right off it. That's when he's at his best."

And that is what should play out here Saturday. Seven were entered in the Hanshin, including Coach Jimi Lee, who has high-level sprinter's speed and should set an honest pace. Wiggins, a top local contender, will have to overcome the rail draw, with Fighting Indians, Kodema, Attack the Books, and Apt to Be joining Crafty Shaw in the field.

The spot seems ideal for Crafty Shaw, who whose only win in four starts this season came, of course, at a mile.

"I thought at one point he could win a Grade 1 somewhere, sometime," Vestal said. "He never quite did. If you look at last year, he ran against seven of the top class handicap horses in the country. He could make them run fast - he just couldn't beat them."

Much talk of slots

Chicago horsemen have an ear to the ground these days, listening to the drumbeat coming from Springfield, the state capital.

A sweeping gambling bill that included a provision for bringing slots to the state's racetracks passed the Senate Executive Committee last week, but has made no real progress since then. The state, for the second year, faces a serious budget shortfall and is scrambling for revenue sources. But Gov. Rod Blagojevich is opposed to the introduction of land-based gaming, including ontrack slots. The horse racing industry might have the ear of enough legislators to snag a piece of statewide gaming expansion, but the truth is that right now, nobody knows what's going to happen.

Many horsemen feel something has to give, or Thoroughbred racing in Chicago will stop stagnating and begin sinking.

"I feel like there's a sense of urgency right now," said Chris Block. Block has a full barn of horses at Arlington, and his family has a prominent Illinois breeding operation.

"Expenses continue to go up, and the purses stay at the same level," Block said. "It's become very difficult for me to go to an owner to justify going out and buying a horse right now."

Block and other local horsemen say racetracks within shipping range that offer slots-enhanced purses endanger racing at Arlington. In recent years, Chicago-based horses have left town with greater frequency to run at Mountaineer Park and Prairie Meadows, both of which have slots. Louisiana Downs, with a meet concurrent to Arlington's, also has slots, and purses there are rising.

"There's less and less available for our own market," said trainer Joe Kasperski, head of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "Even $5,000 claimers are spread out across the country now. Those used to be 12-horse fields."

Kasperski said Wednesday he had heard of no fresh news from the capitol. Whether or not slots go forward, he said, depends on whether or not the legislature can get enough votes to override the governor's veto.

Look for her late

The Friday feature, a second-level grass allowance for fillies and mares, scraped onto the program with only six turf entries. A seventh horse is entered for the main track only, but the forecast, for a change, is rain-free, and the feature, race 5, figures to stay on turf.

But guessing at the weather may prove easier than picking a winner. On form alone, the race is confusing, and a lack of early speed further complicates things.

Sassy Belle and Stormybdancing probably have the most pace, and thus could derive the greatest benefit from slow splits, but Sassy Belle is suspect at this nine-furlong trip, and the pair has combined for only four wins from 38 starts.

As a deep closer Chequered Love might be fighting the race shape, but her lone turf win came at 1 1/8 miles. She might be up just in time.